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Friday Essay: land, kinship and ownership of ‘Dreamings’

Detail of Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Warlpiri, 2003, Yanjirlpiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming at Yarripirlangu). Image courtesy of the artist's estate, licensed by Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu.

Friday Essay: land, kinship and ownership of ‘Dreamings’

Aboriginal kinship is an integral part of The Dreaming, as are people themselves and their land (or “country” as it’s known in Aboriginal English). One’s place in the kinship system also determines one’s rights and obligations with respect to other people, country, and artistic expression.

Dreaming Law (not “lore”) thus governs traditional Aboriginal kinship, its relationship to land tenure and to “Dreaming” ownership and obligations.

Ownership of country, and the corresponding Dreamings are largely matters of inheritance; in some cases it’s possible to acquire additional Dreamings via exchange or other transactions, as a way of increasing cultural capital.

For other Aboriginal groups living in places mostly out of reach of the urban and suburban centres – such as the Yolngu Matha-speaking peoples of Arnhem Land in northern Australia and nearby islands, this is also the case.

This map attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. CLICK TO ENLARGE. © Aboriginal Studies Press, AIATSIS, 1996.

Dreamings are owned

In terms of the relationship between Dreamings and Aboriginal art, a limited parallel could be drawn with the contents of the Christian Bible. The Books that collectively comprise the Old and New Testaments have long restricted the subject matter portrayed by Christian artists.

Alma Nungarrayi Granites, Yanjilypiri or Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa (Star or Seven Sisters Dreaming). CLICK TO ENLARGE. Image courtesy of the artist and Warlukurlangu Artists Yuendumu.

No individual is at liberty to write or add, willy-nilly, an entirely new “chapter” or Book to the existing Bible. Nevertheless, over time, Biblical interpretations have undergone considerable change.

The same goes for Dreamings, although perhaps to a lesser extent than in the Bible, because for aeons there was little outside cultural contact or influence on Aboriginal Australia.

Still, Dreamings and Dreaming narratives are understood and interpreted somewhat differently in the contemporary colonial context. The “politics of interpretation” is always subject to vagaries of the particular times and places in which people are living, and people will always understand religious or other texts through the prism of the present day.

What’s missing from the preceding analogy is the critical importance of Aboriginal kinship relationships in determining individual or group rights of representation of imagery or narratives. For Aboriginal people, exercising one’s entitlement to paint or otherwise render a specific Dreaming is not only limited to the available repertoire of Dreamings present on any given “country”, but also subject to kinship rights.

But what these two great religious art movements – Christianity and “The Dreamtime” or “Dreaming” – do share, is their narrative basis. These narratives can be sung, painted in condensed visual form, or rendered in other material or non-material form.

In both cases adherence to certain core or fundamental principles, truths, and subject matter is de rigueur, and if artists or others deviate from those socially acceptable core elements, then an outcry (and sometimes legal sanctions followed by punishment) ensues.

Athena Nangala Granites, Warlpiri, 2014, Yanjilypiri or Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa, (Star or Seven Sisters Dreaming). CLICK TO ENLARGE. Image courtesy of Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu.

In the Christian context, when Robyn Archer curated the Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1998, some Christians, predominantly members of Adelaide’s conservative Greek Orthodox faction, raised vocal objections to the Festival’s signature poster showing a reconfigured Byzantine painting of the Virgin Mary holding or playing an accordion.

In some cases, the protesters asserted ownership over that imagery and walked around Adelaide ripping the posters down, accusing the Festival Director and others involved of blasphemy. Eventually, the print run was withdrawn.

In a similar vein, I have personally witnessed Kathleen Petyarre, the celebrated Eastern Anmatyerr artist, practically incandescent with rage, standing on her country, ripping the newly-completed canvas of a much younger artist into shreds while berating the young woman in a classical Anmatyerr grievance monologue.

This incident held the rest of us present utterly transfixed and silent. The reason for this unexpected outburst was perfectly analogous to the earlier example. It was ultimately an accusation of blasphemy as a result of the unfortunate young woman’s alleged deviation from Dreaming Law.

Warlpiri kinship and the Jukurrpa

For clarity’s sake, this article will focus solely on the Warlpiri kinship system and its relationship to Jukurrpa – the Warlpiri word concept translated generically as “The Dreamtime” or “Dreaming”. The emphasis will be on how these factors play out in artistic production.

Kinship rights and obligations apply to land ownership, while also regulating social relationships. These are all regarded as deriving from the Jukurrpa.

Intellectual copyright flows on from land ownership, giving certain groups or individuals rights of representation of the particular Jukurrpa connected with specific tracts of “country”. This can be represented in material or non-material form – for example, as visual art, oral narrative, song or dance.

The fact that only particular people are permitted to render specific subject matter in their artistic productions, also originates in the Jukurrpa. This system ensures the survival of specialised knowledge of all aspects of human existence, from zoology to astronomy to morality.

Alma Nungarrayi Granites at Yuendumu, 2016, working on one of her Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa (Seven Sisters Dreaming), which is one of her Dreamings. Image courtesy of Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu.

For the Warlpiri, the Jukurrpa governs every aspect of life. It accounts for the world, indeed the universe. It encompasses kinship Law; land ownership; ownership of specific Dreamings and the concomitant right to render/represent those “owned” Dreamings in visual (or other) form.

Thus the Jukurrpa mediates people’s kinship obligations and exchanges and their relationship with other species and the natural environment (including localised micro-environments).

Jukurrpa informs the full range of social interactions including one’s particular kinship positioning determining whom one is permitted to marry (or not), and excluding those who need to be avoided on account of taboo relationships.

A person’s mode of addressing others is also regulated by the kinship system – specifying those with whom one may share a joke and those with whom any form of personal contact is off limits.

The Warlpiri kinship system is premised on the distinction between maternal and paternal relations. Kin terms also distinguish gender, age, seniority, and generation level. This complex system is also condensed into eight subsections.

Subsections are categories, into which every baby is born. They also link each child to specific Jukurrpa, which in turn are connected to land ownership.

The names of the Warlpiri subsections begin with “N” for girls/women, and “J” for boys/men. They are as follows:

Courtesy of Mary Laughren. CC BY-ND

In the above, the ideal marriage partners have been grouped in clusters (for example, a Japangardi man should ideally marry a Nampijinpa woman). But in each case there are two other possibilities for marrying partners in unions that are not considered incestuous. Variants of this system exist throughout Aboriginal Australia.

These have become known as “skins”, classifying men and women as a function of their parents’ subsections. People’s “skin-names” are relational terms. Every single Warlpiri person is regarded as being related in specific ways to every other Warlpiri person, regardless of whether their relationship is directly biological.

Ties, whether classificatory or biological, come with specific obligations. The Warlpiri “skins”, are divided into two halves that anthropologists call “moieties”.

Against these elaborate kinship structures, the (predominantly) nuclear family model of kinship within Australia’s dominant culture and the terminology used to describe it, seems simple, even simplistic.

To provide just one relatively uncomplicated example, the Warlpiri use the word “warringiyi” when talking about or to their paternal grandfather, or any of his brothers or sisters; but “jamirdi” to describe or address their maternal grandfather and any of his brothers or sisters.

When referring to one’s paternal grandmother, or to her brothers or sisters, the word used is “yaparla”, while one calls one’s maternal grandmother “jaja”, as well as her sisters or brothers.

Kirda and Kurdungurlu

For every tract of land, and every Warlpiri Jukurrpa, there are two groups of land- and Jukurrpa-owners, with different responsibilities.

In the Warlpiri language, these two groups are known as “kirda” and “kurdungurlu”.

Kirda are the legal “bosses” (as described in Aboriginal English) for a particular ceremony, Jukurrpa site or stretch of “country”.

Justinna Sims Napaljarri, 2013, Warlpiri, Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa, (Star or Seven Sisters Dreaming). CLICK TO ENLARGE. Image licensed by Yuendumu Warlukurlangu Artists.

The kirda relationship to country is inherited from a particular person’s father’s side or from their father’s father’s side.

Sometimes kirda are described as “owners” of specific tracts of land but both kirda and kurdungurlu imply ownership.

The semantic scope of these terms is substantially different from Anglo-European notions of “land owners”. The co-owners, the kurdungurlu, whose rights derive from their mother’s father, fulfil a different function from that of kirda.

Kurdungurlu have been described as the “managers”, responsible for “policing” such things as ceremonies and Jukurrpa narratives and other forms of expression. Generally speaking, they are responsible for ensuring that the kirda “get it right”. They have the right to intervene if they believe that mistakes are being made.

Thus, over aeons, kurdungurlu safeguarded the integrity of cultural memory, in situations where a high level of memory labour was required simply for survival.

For those living in mostly arid, marginal country, for instance, the entire group might be doomed if a specific Ngapa Jukurrpa (Water Dreaming) person fails to locate a particular source of underground water.

While kurdungurlu are related to and responsible for particular Dreaming sites, this responsibility derives from their mother’s side.

Kurdungurlu are required to provide critical feedback to the kirda, with regard to country, sites and ceremonies, and to ensure that key activities are carried out by kirda in accordance with the Law.

Theirs could be described as a management role. The checks and balances involved could be likened to the relationship between the Australian House of Representatives and Senate.

Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Warlpiri, 2003, Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming at Yarripirlangu). CLICK TO ENLARGE. Image courtesy of the artist's estate, licensed by Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu.

In this context, the kurdungurlu have the right to insist on amendments to the kirdas’ assertion of rights over country, or to depictions of the specific Jukurrpa associated with that land. Encrypted in each Jukurrpa artwork are details pertaining to land navigation.

Knowledge is thus preserved in intact form, rather than being entrusted to any individual with sole responsibility for maintaining the integrity of that knowledge.

The kirda/kurdungurlu relationship is based on a principle of radical complementarity, involving an elaborate system of checks and balances.

It is a system of inheritance that emphasises the co-operative nature of land ownership, Jukurrpa (Dreaming) ownership and the right to depict specific subject matter.

It also translates into a system of co-ownership of specific Dreaming imagery deployed in any Warlpiri artwork or other creative expression.

For each Dreaming, for every tract of Dreaming-country, and for any given artwork, there will be one group of people who are kirda and another who are kurdungurlu.

A family of ‘Stars’

The late Paddy Japaljarri Sims was kirda for the Yanjilypiri (Star), Napaljarri-warnu _(Seven Sisters) and _Yiwarra (Milky Way) Jukurrpa.

This he inherited from his late father, Jungarrayi. Paddy Japaljarri Sims was not only a celebrated Warlpiri artist but also an expert astronomer.

Paddy Japaljarri Sims, Warlpiri, 2004, Yiwarra Jukurrpa (Milky Way Dreaming). CLICK TO ENLARGE. Image licensed by Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu.

Japaljarri’s Yanjilypiri Jukurrpa (Star Dreaming at Yarripirlangu), the lead image in this article, evokes a group of large rocks near a significant Star Dreaming site at Yarripirlangu, on Warlpiri country.

The rock clusters on that site resulted from a meteorite falling to earth thousands of years ago, leaving a large dent in the flattened ground.

The indentation provided an excellent dancing ground used in men’s large initiation ceremonies, for which Yarripirlangu became an important site.

Detailed renditions of Yiwarra and associated narratives were also part of this grand old man’s considerable knowledge-based artistic repertoire.

Japaljarri’s daughter, Alma Nungarrayi Granites, is also kirda for several astronomy-based Jukurrpa, the right to which she inherited from her father.

Nungarrayi’s representational rights, deriving from her place in the kinship system, also translate into land rights and ownership. In turn, Nungarrayi has become particularly famed for her visual renderings of the Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa (Seven Sisters Dreaming).

Alma Nungarrayi Granites, Warlpiri, 2011, Yanjirlpirri or Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa, (Star or Seven Sisters Dreaming). CLICK TO ENLARGE. Image licensed by Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu, and courtesy of the Burkhardt-Felder Collection.

Dynasties of the Desert

Lines of Jukurrpa ownership continue inter-generationally. Younger generations of the same familial line, including Justinna Napaljarri Sims (Paddy’s son’s daugher) and Athena Nangala Granites (his great granddaughter), have also inherited proprietary rights to Napaljarri-warnu Jukurrpa. These come with rights to specific “country” and representations of that country.

Paddy Japaljarri Sims’s wife, Bessie Nakamarra Sims, inherited the right to paint a different corpus of Jukurrpa, as kirda.

Bessie Nakamarra Sims, Warlpiri, 2011, Ngarlajiyi Jukurrpa (Small Yam, Bush Carrot, Vigna Lanceolata Dreaming). CLICK TO ENLARGE. Image courtesy of Warlukurlangu Artists, Yuendumu.

Nakamarra’s entitlement to paint Ngarlajiyi Jukurrpa (Small Yam or Bush Carrot Dreaming) was passed down to her by her own father.

Nakamarra does not paint the same “star” Dreamings as her husband, or children, since her relationship to them is that of kurdungurlu.

The marriage system is premised on an individual marrying another person to whom one is somewhat distantly related. This, at base, is founded on genetics – it’s partly about avoiding birth defects, especially when groups may be drawing upon a relatively small gene pool.

It’s little wonder that this kinship system has been described as exemplifying “the genius of the Warlpiri people”.

The same can be said of the kinship systems of all other Australian Aboriginal groups – but in a relatively brief article like this it’s barely possible to do anything like justice to their social, political and religious complexities.


This Friday essay is the sixth instalment in our Dreamtime series.






Disclaimer: The AIATSIS map used attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of Aboriginal Australia. It shows only the general locations of larger groupings of people which may include clans, dialects or individual languages in a group. It used published resources from 1988-1994 and is not intended to be exact, nor the boundaries fixed. It is not suitable for native title or other land claims. To purchase a print version visit: www.aiatsis.ashop.com.au.


Christine will be on hand for an Author Q&A between 3 and 4pm ACDT on Tuesday, March 22, 2016. Post your questions in the comments section below.

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